Unaka outlasts University High

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR Correspondent

   JOHNSON CITY -- The Unaka Rangers stepped forward and answered the challenge on Tuesday night with a Watauga Valley Conference victory over University High in a 78-69 final at Brooks Gym.
   "I thought that was a very hard-fought battle, and despite just hitting 1 for 20 from the three-point line, we were still able to win," said Unaka coach Donald Ensor.
   The Jr. Bucs grabbed the opening tip, but were quickly denied by Ben Cole, who made the steal and took the ball the length of the court for a layup.
   University High (1-3, 8-9) was able to respond next time down the floor with a 12-foot jumper from Gary Williams.
   It didn't take the Rangers (5-0, 14-9) long to feel the presence of Brandon Bradley, who made a two-hand jam, grabbing the Jr. Bucs' first lead.
   Bradley led UH with 25 points on the night.
   Unaka found its way back on top to start off the second quarter with Cole hitting the boards and converting on the putback.
   He would lead the Rangers with 27 points, followed closely by teammate Aaron Dugger with 26.
   "Coach talked to us and said if we want to win we're going to have to turn it up," Cole said. "This is a hard place to do so, and I'm just proud of our team tonight."
   The lead swapped hands seven times between the two ballclubs in the second period, with neither team able to achieve a little breathing room until the 2:25 mark, when emotions started to flare.
   A technical foul was called on Cole for aggressive behavior, and then a double technical went against Jermaine Lomans for taunting and his response to the referee's decision.
   The Rangers went on a 9-2 run in the final minutes of the half to give themselves a 38-29 lead at halftime.
   During the third quarter, UH climbed its way back into the contest by riding the inside play of Bradley and the outside shooting of Jabari Bowers.
   "It looked like we might of lost a step or something in the start of the second half, but Chris Arnold and Josh Jones both came off the bench and contributed big," said Ensor.
   With three minutes to go in the quarter, UH went ahead on a Bradley putback.
   The two teams battled back and forth till the end of the stanza, which ended with Cole connecting from the paint right before the horn sounded, making it 54-52 Unaka.
   In the final period of play, the game wouldn't be decided until the final minute of the contest.
   "I think it came down to fresh legs in the end," said Jr. Bucs coach Tony Gordon. "We were empty, and they do a good job of spreading you out, making you play a whole quarter of defense."
   Clutch free-throw shooting from Dugger and defensive hustle by Cole proved to be the difference down the stretch.
   "We have good enough players to score, but our defense was what we needed to step up with," Cole said. "I thought we did a good job at it tonight."
   Dugger was 16-of-16 from the foul line on the night, while Unaka finished with the total of 29-of-34.
   "We didn't rebound as well as I would of liked, but we just couldn't get our shots to drop in the last four minutes of the game," said Gordon.
   Lady Junior Bucs 51
   Lady Rangers 43
   UH was able to hold off a second-half Unaka rally and hang for the win.
   "This is probably the best job my team has done all year in rebounding and blocking out. I stress it in every practice, and they finally did it," said University High coach Amy Horton.
   The Rangers (3-1, 4-14) appeared to be on their way to remaining undefeated in conference play in the early minutes of the contest, as they jumped out to an 8-0 lead.
   Banging of the boards and a couple of passes from Danielle Ensor helped Julie Roberson score the first eight points of the game.
   The Jr. Bucs (1-3, 7-7) fired back strong, though, with a 10-0 run capped by Beth Helmbrecht scoring a bucket and drawing a foul.
   The second quarter was not that kind to the Rangers, as Roberson, Coty Townsend, and Renee Ensor all picked up three fouls.
   The Rangers fell behind as many as 11 points with the period, and trailed 29-20 at the break.
   Unaka chipped away at the lead in the third quarter, closing the gap to within three off a three-point shot from Renee Ensor.
   "They caught on to our press in the second half. We just had to make some adjustments to change things up," said Horton.
   Trailing 38-35 heading into the final period, Unaka was able to cut the lead to two, after Renee Ensor knocked down her second trey.
   Unaka was just 2-of-14 from the arch, which seemed to be a deciding factor in the outcome.
   "We just had one of those nights where we couldn't hit a shot. We were getting some good looks, but they just weren't going in," said Unaka coach Kenneth Chambers.
   Able to keep the Rangers at bay in the final minutes of action, UH was led by Meredith Reardon with 18 points and Crystal Evans with 14.
   The Rangers were paced by Roberson in scoring with 16 -- 14 of them coming in the first half of play.
   "I'm really proud of the girls," said Chambers. "We had a long talk after the game, and I think we're fine right now."